Albert Einstein looms over 20th-century physics as its defining, emblematic figure. His work altered forever the way we view the natural world. "Newton, please forgive me," Einstein begged as relativity theory wholly obliterated the absolutes of time and space that the reigning arbiter of all things physical had embraced more than two centuries earlier.
With little more to show than a rejected doctoral thesis from a few years before, this 26-year-old patent clerk, who practiced physics in his spare time and on the sly at work, declared brashly that the physicists of his day were "out of [their] depth" and went on to prove it. Besides special and general relativity, his work helped to launch quantum mechanics and modern statistical mechanics. Chemistry and biotechnology owe a debt to studies by Einstein that supplied evidence of the existence of molecules and the ways they behave.
This article was originally published with the title The Patent Clerk's Legacy.